Category Archives: Poetry

Poetry 144: This is the Place by Tony Walsh

This video shows the poet, Tony Walsh, reading his powerful poem out at the vigil for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack.  The vigil was held on 23rd May 2017, the day after 22 people were killed (and many more injured) by a suicide bomber, as they left the venue following a pop concert.

This weeks poem was suggested by Barry Daniel, who is himself a ‘Mancunian’.  If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Poetry 143: Unicorn by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze
Oslo Vigeland Unicorn Sculpture Girl Bronze

This is the animal that never was.
Not knowing that, they loved it anyway;
its bearing, its stride, its high, clear whinny,
right down to the still light of its gaze.

It never was. And yet such was their love
the beast arose, where they had cleared the space;
and in the stable of its nothingness
it shook its white mane out and stamped its hoof.

And so they fed it, not with hay or corn
but with the chance that it might come to pass.
All this gave the creature such a power

its brow put out a horn; one single horn.
It grew inside a young girl’s looking glass,
then one day walked out and passed into her.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This weeks poem was suggested by Robert M. Ellis.  If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Poetry 127: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

nght-sky-1209124_960_720

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This weeks poem was suggested by Jim Champion (and is featured in the excellent TV series, Breaking Bad: Season 3, Episode 6).

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Poetry 125: Birds’ Nests by Edward Thomas

british_birds_nests_how_where_and_when_to_find_and_identify_them_1898_14769402103

The summer nests uncovered by autumn wind,
Some torn, others dislodged, all dark,
Everyone sees them: low or high in tree,
Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark.

Since there’s no need of eyes to see them with
I cannot help a little shame
That I missed most, even at eye’s level, till
The leaves blew off and made the seeing no game.

‘Tis a light pang. I like to see the nests
Still in their places, now first known,
At home and by far roads. Boys knew them not,
Whatever jays and squirrels may have done.

And most I like the winter nests deep-hid
That leaves and berries fell into:
Once a dormouse dined there on hazel-nuts,
And grass and goose-grass seeds found soil and grew.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Fall of Phaethon

I recently came upon this Latin phrase: Medio tutissimus ibis (You will go most safely by the Middle Way), and was intrigued. I looked it up, and found that it came from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was one of the greatest Roman poets, and his Metamorphoses are treatments of various Classical myths around the theme of transformation. The quotation comes from the story of Phaethon, and it turns out that it has quite a lot of symbolic power as a story about the Middle Way.

The story goes that Phaethon was the unrecognised son on Phoebus (Greek Helios), the sun  god who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. On finding out from his mother that he was the son of Phoebus, Phaethon went to him asking for recognition. Phoebus agreed to grant him any favour he might ask, so Phaethon then demanded to drive the sun chariot across the sky for a day. Phoebus warned him about how difficult this involves. The horses are difficult to control, and you need to follow a middle path to make sure the earth gets the right amount of heat.  Deviating from that middle path could have disastrous consequences. But Phaethon insists. Here is the crucial passage where Phoebus advises Phaethon on his course.

Observe with care that both the earth and sky
have their appropriate heat—Drive not too low,
nor urge the chariot through the highest plane;
for if thy course attain too great a height
thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky,
and if too low the land will scorch with heat.
“Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe;
nor let the Wheel turn over to the right
and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let
it take thee to the Altar on the left—
so close to earth—but steer the middle course.—
to Fortune I commit thy fate, whose care
for thee so reckless of thyself I pray.

(Metamorphoses 2:137, trans. More)

It is “take thou the middle plane, where all is safe” that corresponds to the Latin phrase medio tutissimus ibis. There are a number of interesting aspects to this from the standpoint of the symbology of the Middle Way. Firstly, the middle course is three dimensional: not too high or too low as well as not too far to the left or right. Of course, the Middle Way is not any old middle course between any set of conventionally-define extremes, but the extremes given by Ovid seem to be of greater significance than that and so in many ways match up with those avoided by the Middle Way. If we consume the mansions of the sky, this could stand for appropriating the divine or the idea of the perfect and infinite. If on the other hand, we scorch the land, this can stand of absolutizing particular worldly goals and thus allowing our ambitions and ideologies to consume the world. The twisted snake may be associated with Asculapius, the god of medicine who was supposed to have been punished for taking medicine too far and reviving the dead. On the other hand, the Altar obviously has associations with religiosity. So the left and right extremes here could well be understood as standing for scientism on the one hand, which pushes science too far by drawing absolute conclusions from it, and religious absolutism on the other.fall-of-phaethon-carlo-dellorto-ccbysa4-0

Like us, pushed into the world to try to follow a Middle Way, Phaethon is horrifically unprepared. He is a reckless and naïve youth who has neither the skill nor the wisdom to follow that middle course. The results follow in the rest of the story. Phaethon is unable to control the horses, and plunges to earth, where the fire of the sun starts to burn everything up (apparently producing the Sahara desert). The earth appeals desperately to Jupiter, who sends a lightning-bolt which destroys Phaethon and somehow stops the conflagration.

The Fall of Phaethon thus seems to be a potent symbol of the potentially disastrous consequences of veering from the Middle Way. By falling to earth he veers too far off the path downwards, giving way too much to narrow worldly goals and beliefs. The idea that this might destroy the world through heat can be a potent one for us today, given the threat of global warming, one of the effects of which are a greater threat of conflagrations and desertification, both mentioned by Ovid. This threat can be directly linked to our tendency to absolutise our desires.

Links:

Wikipedia on Phaethon

Online translation of Ovid’s metamorphoses

 

Picture: Fall of Phaethon, mural in a Genoese villa, taken by Carlo Dell’Orto CCBYSA 4.0